She grew up in Long Beach, CA. In 1984 her swim coach would pull the team out of workout to watch the swimming races being swum down the street at the LA Olympic Games.
Side note: when she shared this about her coaches showing inspirational footage on deck, I couldn’t help but smile and reminisce about the many coaches I’ve had that have done the exact same thing! It just reminds you how impressionable young people are and that we need to be encouraged to dream big and then go after our goals with gazelle-like intensity.
Okay, back to Susan: she was 15 years old in ’84 and decided then she wanted to go to the Olympics in swimming. Later that year she made her Senior National time standard and thought she was on track for great things to happen in the next 4 years. She wanted to be primed and ready come the ’88 Games. However, things didn’t quite go that way. She didn’t improve in her primary event, the 200 fly, over the next 4 years or the years in college. It wasn’t until her senior year at the University of Alabama towards the end of her career that she felt like things might be getting better. But this ended when she went out too fast at their conference championship in 200 fly and couldn’t hang on. She didn’t qualify for a night swim–not even consolation finals. That was it. She was done.
After graduation, getting married and doing a couple triathlons here and there, she met someone from the Olympic Training Center that encouraged her to think about racing ITU, Olympic races. She thought about it and accepted the challenge. She went pro in 1996. She competed in the 2000 Olympic Trial events, but found out just before the last qualifier she was pregnant. She did not make the team and thought her Olympic pursuit was probably over. But wait–the story continues!
After toying with retiring from the ITU racing, she decided to give it another shot for the ’04 Games in Athens. Going into the 2004 Olympic Trail qualifiers, Susan was the dark horse. No triathlon media or PR expected Susan to make the team. The media had their 3 who they thought were shoe-ins, but they didn’t know Susan Williams. She was (and still is) a fighter. She worked hard, focused on herself and performing to the best of her ability on race day. She made the team in the 3rd qualifier race. She was going to Athens. Her dream of going to the Olympics was coming true!
Like many athletes, she didn’t want to overthink the Olympics. This was just like another world championship race. Yes, it only happens every four years. Yes, everyone and their mother are watching the Games. Yes, you want to podium and bring home a medal for your country. But if athletes dwell on all those things, they will crumble under the pressure and expectations. So again Susan wanted to perform her best on that given day and of course, enjoy every moment of it. If she medaled, she medaled. She was going to leave it all out on the course.
Athens came. She exited the water in a pretty good position. She hopped on her bike and was able to catch up to another American, Barb Lindquist (fyi, Barb is the coordinator and camp director for this week’s Collegiate Recruitment Camp). The girls worked together well and were picking up speed. However, Susan came around a turn very fast and crashed with her bike almost flying over her head. Miraculously, as she said, there was no damage to her bike or her body. She hopped back on and before long all three American women were in a bike pack together. The 3rd American was Sheila Taormina.
They entered T2 in 2nd, 3rd and 4th. They took off running knowing there were some strong runners coming up behind. They all ran their hearts out for 6.2 miles.
Well remember the girl who wanted to go to the Olympics as a swimmer? Remember the girl who didn’t improve in her sport for years? Remember the girl who didn’t make the 2000 team? Remember the girl who didn’t give up on her dream, but gave it one more shot? Remember the girl that no one expected to make the 2004 team? That girl, Susan Williams held on to take the bronze medal. She is to this day the only American triathlete to podium at the Olympic Games. Did I mention she was 35 years old?
And now you know, the rest of the story. -Paul Harvey